Food & Drink | Women of Taste

Not a sake lover? You just haven’t met sommelier Yuki Imanishi

by Joan Bailey

Contributing Writer

Yuki Imanishi, sake sommelier and CEO of Sake Lovers Inc., holds a bottle of Reiwashu up to her computer camera during an online tasting event. A creative workaround due to COVID-19, her passion for Japan’s national brew, and the small breweries that make it, still comes through loud and clear.

“It’s a little bit like Champagne,” she says. “Kamigokoro Shuzo did a secondary fermentation with white peach yeast for this unique sparkling sake. It also,” she adds before taking a sip, “has a hint of Okayama (Prefecture’s) famous peaches.”

At Sake Lovers Inc., which Imanishi founded in 2018, she works with a total of 100 small breweries like Kamigokoro Shuzo to promote their products and connect them directly with consumers. The majority are family-owned with only a handful of employees. Primarily located in rural areas, their local customer base is dwindling as younger people move to cities and populations decline.

“These days, those brewers have to try and sell their sake in far-away places like Tokyo or foreign countries, but they don’t have the staff or budget to do that. That’s where I can help,” Imanishi says. “They need help telling their story.”

To do that, she relies on two key processes: regular tastings and brewery visits, both of which she conducts personally. “When you understand (a brewer’s) story and history, when you meet them and stand in that place, hear them speak, you cannot help but taste that love and effort,” she says. “I want to share that with the world. It’s all worth preserving.”

She sees these small breweries and their sake as a chance to explore the unique culture and history of a place via taste bud and bottle. Brewed from rice, water, and kōji (a mold grown on rice for brewing sake), farmers traditionally transitioned from field to brewery over the course of a year to turn their harvest into a local drink. Sake brewing is a six-month-long process led by the tōji (lead brewer), who supervises everything from the arrival of the first grain of rice to the temperature of fermentation tubs to the bottling process. For many, that can mean practically living on site at the brewery.

“Brewers say that to make delicious sake, you have to nurture the bacteria like a baby,” Imanishi says, referring to sake’s fermentation process. “To make good sake, it’s really a lot of hard work and time, much of it in the coldest part of winter. It makes you realize that sake is not just bottled liquor. It’s a product of craftsmanship.”

Taste test: Yuki Imanishi (front row, far right) leads a sake tasting tour to Inoue Sake Brewery in Kanagawa Prefecture. | COURTESY OF YUKI IMANISHI
Taste test: Yuki Imanishi (front row, far right) leads a sake tasting tour to Inoue Sake Brewery in Kanagawa Prefecture. | COURTESY OF YUKI IMANISHI

Always a sake fan, in 2010 Imanishi and Mitsunori Osaka, a friend, decided to start a group called Washukai (Japanese Sake Party) as a fun excuse to enjoy sake with more people. They held twice monthly meetings at places around Tokyo and Yokohama that specialized in sake where they invited brewers, talked about food pairings with the sake featured that evening and organized brewery tours.

The pair met with success. Not only did membership of Washukai increase (it’s now up to 1,000 people) but, Imanishi says, guests began changing their mind about sake. “People might say they didn’t like sake or know how to drink it (at first),” she says. “At those events, they found something they liked and started buying it.”

But despite Washukai’s popularity, Imanishi kept hearing brewers talk about the national beverage’s slow and steady decline, with significant consequences for the industry. According to Clear Inc., in 2000, there were 1,977 breweries in Japan; by 2016 there were only 1,405. “I was shocked,” Imanishi says. “Small breweries match local cuisine, so the taste can change from place to place depending on the rice, water and kōji. I thought it was a shame to lose that (variety).”

Imanishi enrolled in a course at the nonprofit organization FBO Kyokai (Federation of Food and Drink Experts Association), where she studied brewing processes, food pairings, and the flavor and scent profiles of sake. After passing the rigorous written and tasting tests, she officially became a sommelier in 2016. Then, certification in hand, Imanishi left her corporate accounting job of 25 years to open Sake Lovers, Inc. In the future, she plans to open Chacha Bar, a sake bar in Tokyo’s Tsukiji area, but for now she must wait to see what happens with COVID-19.

“When the emergency declaration is lifted,” she says, “it will be a place to experience sake and learn to enjoy it, where people can taste the passion of the brewer.”

For more information about tastings, tours and sake visit sakelovers.co.jp. You can join Washukai for free at washukai.net (some Japanese ability recommended). Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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